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1:10 A.M. — Publix has been part of the fabric of Florida for almost 80 years.

Now, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is asking the supermarket giant to examine one thread in that fabric: tomatoes.

Working with area churches and others, the coalition has mounted a letter-writing campaign to persuade Publix to improve conditions for farmworkers and pay them a penny more per pound for tomatoes they pick.

Publix is one of the 10 largest supermarket chains in the United States with 1,002 supermarkets in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee.

"In its commercials, Publix likes to cast itself as Florida's community grocer - the good neighbor," said coalition member Lucas Benitez. "But how can you be a good neighbor when people are ... forced to work as slaves and robbed of their hard-earned pay in your own backyard, and you turn a blind eye?

"Instead they continue to buy their tomatoes from one of the farms where workers held against their will picked tomatoes."

Benitez was referring to Pacific Tomato Growers, a Publix supplier. Last December, members of the Navarrete family went to federal prison for enslaving 12 men they forced to work on Florida tomato farms, including Pacific's in Palmetto.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the company expects its suppliers to follow the law.

"We are confident that Governor Crist and Florida's law enforcement agencies will work tirelessly to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from our great state," she wrote in an e-mail.

Fort Myers retiree Ann Ochester, a parishioner at St. Columbkille Catholic Church, loves Publix but wishes they'd work with the coalition.

"I'd ask them why, if they're so good to their employees and they care so much about people, why can't they help the people in Immokalee?" Ochester said.

Estero resident Bethani Shilladay attends Christus Victor Lutheran church in Naples, which recently sent more than 100 postcards to Publix. She says it makes sense for the company to support the coalition.

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"Publix is a really good company and they tend to do the right thing," said Shilladay, who teaches visually-impaired students in Charlotte County. "They promote an image of supporting families, and I want them to know that doing this would help so many families. And, it would set an example for other corporations."

Last month, United Methodist Church Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Lakeland, where Publix is based, wrote a letter urging Publix to work with the coalition, but was politely rebuffed, as was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sent Publix a similar letter last year. Publix's response read, in part, "We respectfully decline the opportunity to participate in this program."

Benitez thinks Publix's position is short-sighted.

"Sooner or later Publix will realize that the days of buying tomatoes no questions asked are over, and when they do, they'll come to us to discuss how they can help improve the labor conditions behind the tomatoes they sell."

For her part, Marjorie Winsett, a retired Bonita Springs teacher, has fired off a postcard and stopped buying tomatoes from Publix.

"I love Publix - it's my favorite place - but I just can't do it."

Teacher and literacy coach Cindy Sans of Estero has quit buying Publix tomatoes, too.

Sans' pastor, Dana Hendershot of Christus Victor, has coordinated her parish's efforts to change Publix's mind. In a recent sermon, she said, "We are called to be in the world with our brothers and sisters in Immokalee who experience inhumane treatment in the fields."

In contrast to Publix, Whole Foods, which signed an agreement with the coalition last year, announced Thursday that it has enlisted two Florida tomato growers - Alderman and Ladymoon Farms - to adopt higher labor standards and pass the increase to workers.

"For years we have fought to raise wages and improve working conditions in Florida's fields," said Greg Asbed of the coalition, "not just because it's good for farmworkers, but because it's good for Florida's agricultural industry as a whole."

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